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Walz, state lawmakers look to transform how Minnesota kids are taught to read

The governor has cited disturbing test scores — 58% reading proficiency for white students in Minnesota, with a 30-percentage-point disparity between white students and some racial groups — in arguing that the state must transform reading curricula used in Minnesota schools.

In front: State Rep. Heather Edelson, state Sen. Erin Maye Quade and state Rep. Sandra Feist celebrated Literacy Day in the Capitol Rotunda in April.
In front: state Rep. Heather Edelson, state Sen. Erin Maye Quade and state Rep. Sandra Feist celebrated Literacy Day in the Capitol Rotunda in April.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Rep. Heather Edelson remembers her reaction when a reading specialist told her that her twin sons showed evidence of dyslexia. Because the learning disorder can be hereditary, the specialist asked, did she know of anyone in her family who lived with dyslexia or struggled with reading? 

“I remember feeling like I didn’t want to answer the question,” the DFLer from Edina said. Edelson was held back in third grade at a north Minneapolis elementary school because she wasn’t reading at grade level. Her mother, too, had struggled to read. It wasn’t diagnosed at the time, but Edelson was dyslexic.

State Rep. Heather Edelson
State Rep. Heather Edelson
“There was a lot of shame with answering that question, because I also felt like when she asked me, that it was blaming me, even though she wasn’t necessarily blaming,” Edelson said. “I blocked out a lot of the third grade and the bullying and just what it felt like to not be able to read.”

Edelson’s interest in literacy and education came naturally, then. She was the first in her family to attend college and earned a master’s in social work from the University of Minnesota. When she defeated an incumbent Republican and entered the House in 2019, literacy was one of her top priorities.

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This session, she is the prime House sponsor of the READ Act that would appropriate money to select new reading programs with phonics-based instruction, help districts pay for that curricula and provide professional development for teachers in the new methods. It wouldn’t be an option for districts to change how reading is taught or to keep current curricula. They would be required to adopt a new reading program by July, 2024. It would also fund literacy specialists and screeners and cover the costs of assessing students who are struggling.

“This is a complicated solve on a complicated problem. The most important thing I think any parent, regardless of party, wants is their kids to be able to read,” Edelson said.

A failed method

Edelson’s mention of political parties is significant because how to teach reading later became a political battleground. 

Replacing phonics with curricula known as whole language was a reform movement starting in the ‘80s that sought to move away from the drills used to teach early grade students the sounds that letters and combinations of letters make. The familiar-to-some instruction to “sound out” words comes from applying these skills.

Whole language was meant to approach reading the same way people learn to speak, to escape the drudgery of drills and learn to love books and reading.

“Whole language instruction is based on the philosophy that kids will learn to read naturally if you expose them to a lot of books,” wrote Jill Barshay in the education news site The Hechinger Report.  “Advocates believe it’s better to devote instructional time to the ideas and stories that are in the books rather than forcing kids to memorize the sounds that letters make.”

But studies of learning that attempt to measure how children learn to read have trended toward conclusions that starting children with phonics-based instruction can help with basic reading skills. A national assessment done during the Clinton Administration concluded that  Phonemic awareness and phonics were two of the building blocks for literacy,  along with fluency, guided oral reading, vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies.

So, those developing curricula moved toward a balanced literacy that was a hybrid approach that used some of phonics and whole language, though critics and researchers said it was still light on phonics instruction. Nevertheless, balanced literacy remained the dominant theory for how to teach reading, and the reading wars continued to rage. 

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After Republicans nationally made phonics-based reading instruction part of their national party platform, many Democrats dug in even more in defense of methods like balanced literacy and techniques such as three-cueing that was considered the new way to teach reading.

Low and declining reading scores have driven the national trend toward reemphasizing phonics. Unlike a decade ago, this movement has become bipartisan, with both red states and blue states shifting back to phonics-based reading plans. What is termed the science of reading or evidence-based instruction — or both — has broad support. Pushed initially by parents of children with reading problems, especially the dyslexia community, the move has broadened. While low test scores are problematic across demographic groups, the failure to teach reading has fallen especially heavily on children of color and those from low-income families.

In making his request for $35 million to implement reading changes, Gov. Tim Walz’s budget office cited disturbing test scores. Even though reading proficiency for white students in Minnesota was just 58% — an 8% decline from pre-pandemic measures — that proficiency percentage is higher than any other racial group has ever achieved. Proficiency disparities between white students and some other racial groups are as wide as 30 percentage points. 

State Sen. Erin Maye Quade
State Sen. Erin Maye Quade
“This is a racial justice issue. Absolutely it is,” said Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley. She cited the history of schools purposefully not teaching people of color to read as a form of oppression and said while the intent of what has been happening over the last several decades is different, the outcome is the same.

“If we continue to use methods that don’t work, how is that different?” Maye Quade said. “This is a racial justice issue and one that we can actually solve.” 

Also changing the way people look at the issue is a podcast from American Public Media by Emily Hanford. “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong,” has nearly 4 million downloads. One of the subjects of the six-part series, a national reading curriculum expert at Columbia University, has revised her program. Lucy Calkins said her “Units of Study” which is used widely across the U.S. always had elements of phonics. But her revisions now include daily, structured phonics lessons for the whole class.

Bipartisan support for change

This legislative session, changing the way Minnesota teaches reading — and how education colleges teach teachers to teach reading — is part of the agenda of Walz and all four political caucuses of the Legislature. Similar provisions are in both the House and Senate education policy bills as they head into a conference committee to resolve differences in the omnibus bills. (The comparison of the House and Senate versions begins on page 59 here.)

Among the goals in the Walz “Bold Literacy” request is to “build educator and leader capacity to implement evidence-based literacy practices based on the Science of Reading.” 

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“Minnesota must be bold to address the achievement gap and lack of progress in reading proficiency,” the budget request states. 

The counterpart in the House and Senate is called the READ Act. It would provide up to $85 million in the House, less in the Senate, to change reading instruction via new curricula, revise teacher training and help districts implement the changes. It would also cover the costs of dyslexia screening for students, something Edelson said cost $1,000 for each of her children.

The purpose of the program is to undo decades of teacher training and curricula using balanced literacy, backers say. The state Department of Education would work with the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota to select five reading curricula and three teacher professional development programs. 

“Part of the problem right now is not every district has the resources nor the ability to sit and vet out curricula,” Edelson said. “This is what we have our research universities for.” 

While Maye Quade thinks the House and Senate versions are close, she wants to make sure that districts that already changed curricula and already started training teachers don’t suffer because they got there before the money was provided by the Legislature. Maye Quade, who is one of the six members of the conference committee, wants grants to be retroactive to reimburse early adopters.

While there was no testimony against the changes when the House Education Finance Committee heard the bill on March 21, there has been pushback from universities and some in the schools, Edelson said.

“There’s always this tension between the different players in a school, from the teachers, the superintendents, the principals. There are just different roles. But I would say with the READ Act, because it’s transformative — it really does seek to change how we do literacy in Minnesota and try to bring uniformity around making sure every district is doing best practices — it really got contentious,” Edelson said.

Many teachers and principals, however, support the change and have expressed worries that many children struggled not because of their abilities or effort but because the method failed them. 

During a hearing on what had been House File 629 but is now part of the larger education omnibus bill, a special education teacher from the Rochester school district said she has already been using curricula she described as using the science of reading.

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“Students are excited about reading once they are equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to master basic skills,” said the teacher, Emelia Kalscheur. “I’ve seen significant growth in student achievement whose scores were the lowest, after two years of implementing a reading curriculum based on the science of reading. Many of my students are able to read grade level material that they were not previously able to. I’ve even been able to dismiss my students from special education services because of the growth. I believe this is because of the science of reading.”

Former state finance commissioner and Minneapolis school superintendent Peter Hutchinson urged the Legislature to require colleges of education to make phonics-based teaching central to teacher prep. And Hutchinson said the $100 million set aside in the House and Senate versions is too little. 

“I would urge you to really consider increasing the funding for the READ Act for the implementation, for the training of teachers, 10-fold,” he said. “We’re 20 years behind you making the changes we need. We’ve got the resources.” He said it didn’t need to be ongoing funding but could get the new reading instruction going. 

The politics of naming and blaming

But the fledgling partisan truce in the reading wars doesn’t mean there are no more fights. The most obvious isn’t over how to teach but what to call it. While Walz uses both “science of reading” and “evidence based,” the House and Senate bills don’t. That has led some Republican skepticism of the sponsors’ intentions. 

State Rep. Peggy Bennett
State Rep. Peggy Bennett
“The bill moves forward things we should be moving forward,” said Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, a longtime grade school teacher who is the ranking GOP member on the House education policy committee. “But we can’t just move something forward like a turtle. Our kids can’t afford it.” Rep. Ron Kresha, the Little Falls Republican who is his party’s lead on the education finance committee said this: “Words matter. Especially in reading.”

But Sen. Zach Duckworth, a Lakeville Republican and former Lakeville school board member, was less concerned. While he offered an amendment to include “science of reading” in the Senate version, he said he thinks the bill language gets the state to the same place.

“Whatever you call it, we’re trying to help little kids learn to read,” Duckworth said.

One exchange between Edelson and a Republican who agrees with her on the basic issue, illustrates how the labeling can still inflame politicians.

Rep. Ben Bakeberg, a Republican from Jordan who is a middle school principal, noted that other principals were attending a March meeting of the House education finance committee.

“It’s fitting that there are principals here today because many of us have adopted curricula under the notion that it was best practice,” Bakeberg said. “I’ll just say for myself, it was wrong. That was the wrong thing to do.”

State Rep. Ben Bakeberg
State Rep. Ben Bakeberg
But he continued to argue that DFLers who oppose using the term “science of reading” in the bills are not sincere in supporting curriculum change.

“Do not be misled by the reading charlatans,” Bakeberg said. “We cannot abandon our children for those interested in protecting their pockets — money — and protecting systems that are more comfortable for adults than they are for kids.” He termed whole language and balanced literacy “quite possibly one of the greatest frauds in education in the past 40 years.”

Edelson responded: “I don’t know how you operate in school, but typically name-calling like ‘charlatans’ just doesn’t work. I’m not exactly sure who you’re referring to.”

For Edelson, the terminology is important so that the Legislature isn’t inadvertently blaming teachers and schools for what she agrees was a mistaken turn toward balanced literacy and away from phonics. Without “buy-in” from teachers, the transition will be difficult.

“Teachers don’t go into the teaching profession because they want to ruin people’s lives,” she said. “They were lied to.”

In an interview, Edelson said she wants the changeover to work, to be accepted by teachers and principals..

“No one feels good about being blamed for something bad,” she said. “Those teachers are showing up and giving as much love and as much as they can to kids. The last thing you should do is blame anyone. The state is just as much at fault as anybody. 

“Why didn’t we step in? I’m really cognizant of that.”

Edelson said she is preparing amendments for the conference committee to “place guardrails” on the bill to assure that the intent of lawmakers is met by schools.

Maye Quade described herself as an “elder millennial” who was an early reader and read at college levels by the time she reached middle school. She said she was not aware that reading was a political issue. 

“I’m a science gal. I like to follow the science,” she said.  “I think that’s what people on both sides of the aisle understand.

“Knowing that we have invested in and promoted strategies that have been proven to not work, I feel a tremendous responsibility with the power that I have right now to make sure that we use the things that work and that we don’t use the things that don’t work.

“This was no one’s fault, but it will be my fault if I don’t make changes now that we know better,” she said. “I want to be sure that people don’t feel like we’re placing blame and that we’re really just divesting from the things that don’t work.”

Editor’s Note: This story quotes Peter Hutchinson, who happens to be the chair of MinnPost’s board of directors. Board members are not involved in news decisions.